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Black Velvet Box

“Is this seat taken?”

I jumped slightly at the unfamiliar voice. I’d been so intensely concentrating on poking every last piece of pasta on my lunch plate that I’d kind of tuned out everyone else in the catering room. Looking up, I tried not to seem too surprised to find Lauren standing on the other side of the table, holding her own plate of pasta and asking if she could slip into the seat directly across from me. Now that Jaxon had agreed to let her spend time with the twins and get to know them again, she was tagging along on the tour for a couple days. She was doing great, as far as I could tell, though to be fair, the twins were pretty trusting of everyone.

Still, despite her being in the same hotel and at the past few shows, I hadn’t really spent much time with her. Mostly because I’d been avoiding being alone with her. I had no idea what to say or how our dynamic should be, so I figured the best way to handle the situation was just to make sure there was no situation to begin with.

“Oh, hey!” I said through a mouthful of penne, gesturing for her to sit.

Flashing me a smile, she takes a seat. “It’s Divya, right? I know our introduction was kinda rushed.”

“Kinda.” That was understatement. We’d barely been introduced at all. The only reason I met her was because I was in the right place at the right time. But maybe it was better this way because it would be so much more awkward to have to introduce myself and figure out what label to give myself in relation to Jaxon. I mean, we were dating, but that didn’t mean he wanted his ex to know that. Of course good old Amy already blew that secret out of the water.

Not that I was uncomfortable or anything.

“How long have you and Jaxon been dating?” she asked as she speared a piece of chicken from her pasta dish and brought it to her lips.

I was little caught off guard. I knew she was told that I was Jaxon’s girlfriend, but I didn’t expect her to bring it up. Probably because, if our positions were reversed, I never would have brought it up. Swallowing my bite, I said. “About a month.”

She nodded as she finished chewing. “And you’ve been the twins’ nanny for the same amount of time?”

At first, I resented the implication that I would take a job and then immediately become romantically involved with my boss before I realized I couldn’t be angry because that was almost exactly what happened. Sighing, I said, “I’ve been their nanny for about six months and I feel weird talking about this with you.”

I knew Jaxon had no intention of getting back together with her, or at I didn’t think he did, and as far as I could tell, all of their interactions had been perfectly friendly and about as awkward as a reunion between estranged co-parents could be, but discussing my relationship with Jaxon with his ex was a level of strange I didn’t want to explore.

“It’s okay, really,” she laughed, apparently appreciating my honesty. “I’m not here to, like, steal Jaxon away from you or anything.”

“You’re not?” My eyebrows lifted in surprise because, to be honest, it would almost understandable if she did. After all, she and Jaxon were on the verge of having a lifetime together.

“No,” she shook her head. “I was stupid to walk away from those kids the way that I did. I was young and naïve and stubborn and there were so many things that I wanted to do that I didn’t think I’d be able to do if I was a mother, but even as I was doing those things, all I could think about was what I’d given up to be there.”

“Amy did say that you’d been trying to reach out for a little while now,” I remembered.

She nodded. “A few months. I just want to spend some time with the twins. Get to know them again. I won’t step on your toes, I promise.”

My eyes widened with horror as I realized she was asking for my permission. “Oh, god, I don’t want you think that I’ve marked my territory or something. They are your kids. I’m just…here.”

To be honest, I kind of expected her to be relieved by that statement, but instead she laughed and shook her head. Still, there was a gleam of sadness in her eyes. “I’ve seen you with them. And I may have been around for the first year of their life, but they are much more your kids than mine.”

That was just heartbreaking. “Don’t say that…”

“It’s okay,” she assured me, her smile genuine. “I’m fine with that. I know I can’t just walk back into their lives and pretend like nothing happened. I have to earn their trust and respect again and I’m willing to do that. I just don’t want you to feel like me being around more is putting any sort of strain on your relationship with Jaxon. He deserves some happiness.”

I appreciated that she didn’t want to cause any tension for me, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t inherently there, just by her being around. “I’m sure the two of you were happy once.”

“We were,” she smiled softly, her eyes becoming dreamy. “Incredibly so. I was so dazzled by him when we first met. I’d never seen anyone brighten a room the way he did just by being there. And for a long time, I did think that we would be together forever. But it turned out life had different plans for us.”

“Do you think that you’d still be together if you hadn’t gotten pregnant?” I knew that was a very blunt question, but considering how she’d started our conversation, I figured she didn’t mind.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged, showing no signs of being stressed out, “We can’t really live life by the ‘what ifs’ can we?”

“I guess not,” I replied softly. It was a good philosophy to have, but I couldn’t help but think it applied to less important life decisions.

“I’ll always love him,” she continued matter of factly. “But that doesn’t mean we were meant to be.”

A very mature outlook. One that I hoped to emulate if I ever ended up in a similar situation. For now, I was just relieved we didn’t have to engage in some sort of epic battle royale, because that would have been both stupid and exhausting.

I parted my lips to change the subject to something a bit lighter, but was interrupted Trey hurrying to the table where we were sitting looking very distressed.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he said, a bit out of breath, “but Divya, do you know where Audra’s stuffed pig is? She keeps asking for it, but it’s not in their toy bag.”

Trying not laugh, I nodded. “She slept with it last night, so I think I stuffed it into Jaxon’s duffel. I’ll grab it.”

“You’re the best,” he sighed, smiling widely.

Pushing myself out of the chair, I picked up my empty paper plate and smiled sweetly. “It was nice talking to you, Lauren.”

“Same here,” she replied, sounding completely genuine.

I had a bit of a bounce in my step as I threw my plate away and made my way to the dressing room to find Jaxon’s duffel bag, feeling as though a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

I’d never really thought about what it would be like if Lauren reappeared in Jaxon’s life, mostly because up until she actually showed up, she was more of a concept to me than an actual human being. But now that she was here, alive and breathing and completely sweet, I realized that I didn’t really have anything to worry about anyway.

Humming to myself, I squatted down beside Jaxon’s beat up black duffel bag, starting my search for Penny the Pig in the outside zippers before opening the large middle section and deciding to just stick my hand in and feel around until I found something soft and squishy. After about a minute of searching, my fingers enclosed around something small and cube shaped and before I pulled it out, I knew exactly what it was: a ring box.

My heart immediately started racing at the sight of the velvet box, and even more so when I flipped open the lid to see the beautiful diamond ring inside. I couldn’t breathe as I stared at the piece of jewelry in wide eyed horror, feeling as though my heart was being ripped from my chest because I knew the ring wasn’t for me.

Jaxon was an extremely protective father, which meant that there was no way he would propose to someone he’d been dating for all of two seconds. I knew that, and I wasn’t disappointed by the thought. But what was breaking my heart was the fact that I knew the ring was for Lauren. Trey had told me that Jaxon was about to propose when she left and it looked he could never bring himself to part with the ring once she was gone.

I understood not throwing away something that was probably worth a good chunk of change. But there was a difference between locking it away until he found the right person to give it to in the future and carrying it around with him at all times. Because the latter meant that it still held sentimental value. And maybe I was just reading way too much into it, but to me, the fact that he still kept the ring so close meant that there was a part of him that was still pining for Lauren.

I floated around in a daze for the next hour. I knew I shouldn’t have, but I held on to the ring box, sticking it into the pocket of my jacket before finally retrieving Audra’s pig. I sat on the floor of the dressing room with the twins and kept myself distracted by playing with them through soundcheck, managing to avoid interacting with Jaxon completely until the break before the show actually began.

He found me pacing in the empty hallway outside the dressing room, snapping the lid of the ring box open and closed.

“Hey, beautiful,” he greeted me, all smiles after having checked that his children were still safe and happy. “I feel like I haven’t seen you all day.” He skidded to a halt in front of me when I stopped moving, reaching out to grab my hand, but freezing when he noticed the box in my hand, his eyes widening in horror as he stuttered. “What’s that…that’s not what it looks like.”

“I know it’s not for me, relax,” I said quietly, knowing that was where his mind went first.

“Okay,” he replied, his muscles relaxing and his arm dropping to the side, but his brow still furrowed, “but your forehead is still doing that crinkly thing.”

It has a tendency to do that when I’m concerned. Like I am at this very moment. Flipping the box open with my thumb again, I stare at it as I speak, not sure I’ll be able to emotionally handle making eye contact. “This was for Lauren, right?”

“How do you know that?” he asked, his entire body tensing once more.

I shook my head, closing the lid of the box, knowing I needed to stop torturing myself. “It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you kept it.”

“I spent a lot of money on it,” he shot back.

“I believe that,” I nodded, because obviously that would be a reason to keep it for any normal person. But the problem was that I knew in my heart the reason he kept it wasn’t because he wanted to get his money’s worth. “It’s a beautiful ring.”

Crossing his arms over his chest, he furrowed his brow deeper, sensing that there was something I wanted to say. “I don’t understand what’s going on here.”

“I think that maybe you and I should…” Originally I was going to say ‘talk’. Because we did need to talk. We needed to have a conversation about how he really felt about Lauren being back and whether the friendly awkward tension between them was hiding some deeper feelings. But the more I thought about the entire situation, the more I realized that talking wasn’t good enough. Some action needed to be taken and I had to be the one to set it in motion. So I said, “end this.”

He blinked rapidly as he processed by words, his lips parting and pressing together a few times before he said, “Because I have a ring that I bought two years ago?”

“But that’s just it, Jaxon,” I let out a soft sigh, my fingers tightening around the ring box. “It’s been two years since Lauren left and you still carry this with you, everywhere you go. Which is something you only do with things that mean a lot to you. I think that a part of you still wonders what would have happened if you’d had the chance to give it to her.”

“But I didn’t get that chance because she walked out on me, on all three of us,” he pointed out.

He had a point. But as much as he might resent her for leaving in the first place, it didn’t change the fact that she would always have an unbreakable bond with the children. “But she’s back now.”

“That doesn’t change anything,” he shrugged, dropping his hands to reach out and try to catch my fingers, his eyes pleading with me when I took a step backwards. His voice was just barely above a whisper. “Her being here doesn’t change how I feel about you.”

I wanted that to be true. I wanted so badly for this to be one of those situations that we could work through as long as we had each other. But the truth was that there would always be another person to consider in that equation. “Maybe it should.”

“What are you talking about?”

“She’s the mother of your children and she’s always going to be the mother of your children,” I inhaled and exhaled deeply as I explained the rationale I’d been working through in my mind for the past few hours. “For as long as she wants to stay in their lives, she’s going to be around. And maybe the two of you owe it to yourselves and to your kids to see if you could be a real family again.”

After all, they had been a family before. Surely they could be one again.

“We already are a real family,” he pleaded, making sure to keep his gaze direct. “With you.”

I felt it, too. The past six months had been incredible and I’d come to care for Finn and Audra as though they were my own children. And when the four of us were together, it felt like home. But maybe it wasn’t my home to have. Maybe my place in that family portrait was meant for someone else and I just needed to give Jaxon the space to figure that out for himself.

He wouldn’t leave me for Lauren, at least not right away. It would take him some time to get over his deep seeded mistrust of her. But by the time he figured out that there was something between them worth pursuing, I would have fallen for him beyond the point of no return.

So I had to walk away now. Before I told him how he already held my heart in the palm of his hand. Before everything we built came crumbling down and I was damaged beyond repair. This was about protecting myself; protecting my heart. It was about time I started looking after myself.

“I’ve already made my decision,” I said. It was talking all of my willpower to keep my voice from cracking and keep tears from spilling from my eyes. All I had to do was get through the next minute, slip into the dressing room to kiss the twins goodbye and then walk away. “We both knew this wasn’t going to last forever.”

“Did we?” he asked, not convinced.

And I wasn’t either. Because despite my natural pessimism, there was a whimsical, romantic part of me that had thought I could love Jaxon forever; that wanted a future with him that included a permanent home and homemade lunches and maybe even more children.

But maybe some things are more important than my romanticized dreams of what our life could be. Maybe this is exactly what is supposed to happen: I’m supposed to take a step back and give Jaxon the chance to be really and truly happy. Because if I’d learned anything from love in my quarter of a century on this planet, it was that we find peace in doing what’s best for the ones we love. And that’s what I had to do for Jaxon and Finn and Audra: I had to give them the opportunity to be truly happy.

So I inhaled a shaky breath and reached out to hand him the ring box, trailing my thumb along the back of his hand so that I could memorize what it felt like to touch him one last time, and said, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t do this,” he begged as I stepped around him, twisting his torso to follow my movements, his eyes shiny with tears as he watched me walk backwards to the dressing room.

“I have to,” I whispered, unable to make my voice go any louder. “Goodbye, Jaxon.”

Before I burst into tears, I turned my back to him and hurried into the dressing room to gather my things. After a series of silent and very wet hugs, I waved goodbye to the twins and the very confused band members and headed for the nearest exit in search of a cab and the next flight back to New York. I could hear Jaxon’s voice calling out to be as I neared the door, but I used every ounce of strength I had left to keep myself from looking back.

I saved my sobbing breakdown for the taxi ride to the airport, leaning over my legs and crying into my hands and thinking that maybe this whole being in love business was more trouble that it was worth.

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